Reflecting on reading

Over the past day, I’ve found myself thinking about my relationship with books. There’s a give and take implicit in choosing the word relationship. Books give me windows into other ways of thinking from cyborg Cinderella to a natural history of earthworms through a social history of the Memphis civil rights movement. Those are the books I’ve read parts of today (Cinder, The Earth Moved, and An Unseen Light if you’re interested). My interests are wide ranging; my pace is a frequent cause for comment. In return, I give books an audience. When I choose them, I give their authors’ words life. Without readers, books are bound paper. With readers, they contain multitudes.

Lately, I’ve been on a reading jag. Part of it is because I’m anxious about things that are coming up and reading is a way to occupy the parts of my brain that would otherwise go spinning off in less pleasant directions. Part of it is because I started listening to audiobooks on dog walks. We walk 5 times a week; that’s a lot of time to listen. I also find pleasure in books in a way that I don’t find in my phone. I’d rather read for an hour before bed than spend it on the internet. I sleep better that way.

I read once the kids have gone to bed. I read at work. I read in snatched moments when the kids want to be left alone to devise their own worlds without mommy’s adult brain interfering. I close the book when they ask me to play too. I strive for balance. I never want my drive to read to overwhelm my urge to actively live. I also don’t see those desires as being in conflict.

50 books have come through my life this year. They cross genres and lengths and styles. They’ve brought with them multitudes.

2015 in Books, December

In an unsurprising (to me) turn of events, I’m not reading as much these days. I’m in my third trimester, and everything, including reading, takes more effort. Any moment when I’m not building block towers, at the museum, supervising crayon time or cooking meals, I try to sleep. My girl is growing fast, making her momma (more) ungainly in the process.

  • The Empire of Tea by Alan Macfarlane and Iris Macfarlane
    • I love drinking tea. It makes cold nights more comfortable and grading papers manageable. I found this book on a discount rack and decided that it fit in well with my desire for tea, history and cheap books. Alan Macfarlane is an anthropologist and his mother Iris is a retired tea plantation manager’s wife, which gives them unique perspectives on the topic. Their story of tea blends together science, history and anthropology while focusing mainly on the Assam region of India. I like reading about the British Raj, but I do wish they would have spent more pages talking about the role of tea in other parts of Asia.
  • Crusades for Freedom: Memphis and the Political Transformation of the American South by G. Wayne Dowdy
    • I’m rounding out the year with another book from work. As a general rule, I do not seek out political history books because I find them dull. However, another of my general operating procedures is to read as much as possible about the period I am researching. This book deals with the years 1948-1968, which falls squarely within the scope of the exhibits I am writing. Dowdy compiled good information that adds complexity to my understanding of the city during these decades. Frankly, reading this book makes Memphis’ current political climate seem downright tame.

A year’s worth of books

By my rough count, I’ve read 63 books this year, not including the countless number of kids books I read aloud. It’s a respectable number–nowhere near my peak, but not too shabby when I take into account everything else that happened in 2015, which notably includes raising a toddler and growing a baby.

Part of the reason that I make it a point to read often is so that my son, and soon my daughter, can see me enjoying books. I want to raise readers. Readers can be entertained anywhere, they can explore new ideas and test theories, and I have found that they are generally interesting people who are capable of having great conversations. The best advice I have ever been given is to develop the ability to speak genuinely and intelligently with anybody about a topic that interests them. Sometimes that means knowing a lot about a subject and sometimes it just means knowing how to ask thoughtful questions. I took that advice seriously and realized that being broad in my reading choices is the best way to develop those skills. This year’s books included history, science, literary fiction, young adult novels, architecture, material culture, food, mystery, essays and memoirs. I loved some of them, worked my way through others and stopped reading a few that I just did not enjoy.

I believe that reading makes me a more interesting person. The mental space to encounter new ideas and explore old ideas in unique ways makes me a more thoughtful person. The ability to do something for myself definitely makes me a better mother.

There are a few things that I know for sure about what 2016 will bring. Our family will gain a new member and many sleepless nights. The toddler will grow faster than I realize and learn new things constantly. My children and I will read together. And I will read alone to keep a sense of myself. Because in my continually changing reality, books will remain a constant.

2015 in Books, November

  • Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
    • Fantastically good writing. Honestly, when I read the blurb on the back of the book I wondered how anyone could write a novel based on a man walking between the World Trade Centers on a tightrope. The plot was not what I was expecting, but it was expertly executed.
  • How Buildings Learn: What Happens after They’re Built by Stewart Brand
    • This architecture book was one I read for work. Part of the big idea of the new exhibits I am working on is that the use of the mansion building has evolved over time to fit the needs of its users. My research is leading me to the conclusion that this is true both architecturally and philosophically. Brand made me think about buildings in a whole new way, which had the added benefit of making me love my old house even more.
  • Queen of the Turtle Derby and Other Southern Phenomena by Julia Reed
    • As a general rule, I will read any book that promises humorous essays about the region that I love. Some of Reed’s essays fit the bill and others were not quite my style. It was also odd to read stories written about New Orleans pre-Katrina. I have gotten so used to post-Katrina NOLA discussions, that it was hard to get into a pre-flood mindset.
  • Landline by Rainbow Rowell
    • As with the other Rainbow Rowell books I have read recently, this one made me happy. It’s a fast book, and a reminder to not take people we love for granted.
  • Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook by Dana Gunders
    • I won a copy of this book from The Penny Hoarder, which I was super pumped about. While I already do a lot of the things that Gunders suggests in her handbook–like utilizing the freezer, canning, composting, and making stock from food scraps, I found some good information. For example, her explanation of food expiration and best by dates made me rethink my approach to some of my kitchen staples. I also appreciated the reminder to think about food as precious and something that should be used to its fullest capacity. It’s easy to forget that mindset when living in the land of 24-hour grocery stores. We have a food-secure household, and for that I am very grateful.
  • Elite Women and the Reform Impulse in Memphis, 1875-1915 by Marsha Wedell
    • Background research for a project at the museum. We recently reframed the concept of a gallery that we are redesigning to include a panel about the suffrage movement in Memphis. Wedell’s book does not deal exclusively with the suffrage movement, and it comes before the time period the exhibit will cover; however, I believe in casting a wide net. She gave me background information about the women who were active in the community in a well-researched format.
  • Broken Harbor: A Novel by Tana French
    • Tana French is the reason why I do not read other mystery novels. She sets the bar so high that I have a difficult time finding other authors who can entertain me as well as she does. This is the fourth book of hers that I have read, and, like the others, she kept me guessing and twisting with the lead detective until the end. If you like psychological mysteries, you should definitely give her a read.

2015 in Books, October

I love October. It’s the perfect month for getting cozy under a blanket with a book while drinking a hot mug of tea. Heavenly, actually.

  • Specials by Scott Westerfeld
    • Specials is the third book in Westerfeld’s Uglies series. My best friends and I have a thing for young adult dystopian literature, and we pass series among ourselves as we discover them. It’s our thing, and the fact that we are squarely in the realm of “adults” now does little to dissuade us. I enjoyed reading the rest of Tally’s story, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy the fourth book just as much.
  • A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot that Shook the Nation One Year after the Civil War by Stephen V. Ash
    • And here we have another book that I read at the museum. One of the gallery redesigns that I am working on is about Memphis street life from 1915-1930. The background for this period is squarely found in the Memphis race riots of May 1866 and the Radical Reconstruction decade that followed (as well as the yellow fever epidemic). I knew the riots happened and that they were important in the city’s history, but I didn’t realize how much the issue of whiteness–who was and wasn’t white–came into play. Several members of the mob who attacked the black population were Irish, and Ash does an excellent job teasing out why that matters. If you like local history or are interested in Reconstruction, this book is an excellent addition to the historiography.
  • Seriously, You Have to Eat by Adam Mansbach
    • I received this children’s book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program. Mansbach writes what many parents find themselves saying on a daily basis. The humorous take on a regular frustration was welcome, and my toddler enjoyed hearing the book read. Some of the rhymes are forced, but I enjoyed the spirit of the book nonetheless.
  • Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman
    • I found this short collection of essays in my neighborhood Little Free Library. The one I liked the most was about “compulsive proofreading,” which I am guilty of doing. It’s partially an occupational hazard and mostly because I like catching written mistakes. Her reflections on books and reading also reminded me of the importance of being unashamed of your literary choices. Eclectic reading habits make for interesting readers.
  • Architecture: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Ballantyne
    • Another read for the museum. I’m working on panels about the mansion’s architecture and found myself in need of a very short primer.
  • A Widow for One Year by John Irving
    • John Irving is an interesting writer. I always know that a twist is coming, but his genius lies in not letting you know when it is going to happen or how completely you will have been misled.
  • Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
    • Rowell is the author I am most excited to have found this year. Her stories are fun and well written without trying to hard. This book was about wizards and gave me some Hogwarts nostalgia while being completely its own universe and story. What’s not to like?

2015 in Books, September

  • The Art of Museum Exhibitions: How Story and Imagination Create Aesthetic Experiences by Leslie Bedford
    • We somewhat jokingly have “Theory Thursday” in my department when my boss and I have our philosophical discussions about museum theory. I also try to read a couple of museum books a year both to stay current in my field and also to pull new ideas into my Introduction to Museum Studies class. I had a hard time getting interested in Bedford’s book, but the last chapter made the philosophical underpinnings of the other chapters worthwhile. Basically she suggests that exhibitions are both education and art, and visitors will re-imagine the story line in a way that resonates with them. Therefore, using exhibitions as aesthetic experiences is not about being didactic, it is about facilitating.
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
    • This behemoth of a novel is about the long tradition of English magic, the Napoleonic Wars, personality clashes and a really misguided and vindictive fairy. It took me about a hundred pages to get into the story because Clarke had to lay a lot of groundwork for her alternative history/fantasy to work. Once I made it that far in, though, I was thoroughly hooked. I highly recommend this novel to anyone who is a fan of thoughtful fantasy.
  • Walking on Air: The Aerial Adventures of Phoebe Omlie by Janann Sherman
    • Dr. Sherman’s work on Phoebe Omlie, an aviation pioneer and adoptive Memphian, is astounding. In her afterword, Dr. Sherman lays out just how much investigative research went into piecing together Phoebe’s remarkable life. I would guess that almost everyone knows about Amelia Earhart while very few remember her contemporary female fliers. I happened upon a newspaper article from 1936 that said Phoebe helped organize an exhibit at the Pink Palace about herself and her late husband Vernon, which is what got me down the path of learning more about her and figuring out how we can include part of her story in our new exhibits. This book is a well-researched biography that places Phoebe Omlie and the history of female aviators in a national context.
  • Pretties by Scott Westerfield
    • Pretties is the sequel to Uglies, the YA dystopian novel I read last month. It was an equally entertaining and fast read.
  • Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
    • Rainbow Rowell has the wonderful ability to capture what a period of growing up feels like in a way that makes me remember being there myself. I am a giant nerd who found my people, and I know the relief that comes from knowing that you can be exactly who you are and be loved for that. This novel is a quick read that made me momentarily nostalgic for Harry Potter book release parties.

2015 in Books, June

This month I went for the horrific and depressing. It was one of those accidental reading mash-ups that happen from time to time. Two summers ago I found myself reading book after book set in WWII England. This June it was colonial Australian history and one of the worst hurricanes in modern America.

  • Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History by Erik Larson
    • Next summer we are hosting an exhibit called Nature Unleashed from The Field Museum. For pre-exhibit research I decided to read about the 1900 Galveston, Texas, hurricane (to go along with last month’s book on Mississippi River flooding). This book was published in 1999, well before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, but my brief internet searching says that the 1900 Galveston storm was more deadly. What I liked most about Larson’s book is that he combined the science of storms with an explanation of the historical mindset of turn-of-the-century America. He managed to capture the technological hubris of the day, which is shockingly similar to the present. Larson also told a few individual stories out of the thousands. It combined to make a thoroughly interesting, albeit sad, read.
  • The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Founding by Robert Hughes
    • I read two books this month. Part of the reason is because this bestseller from 1988 is 600 pages long. That’s right, a 600 page history bestseller. That alone was enough to pique my interest. Also, my historical understanding of Oceania is lacking in the sense that it is nonexistent. I never had a class on the area. In fact, the closest I got geographically was one on British India, which shared a few colonial similarities. Bill Bryson introduced me to contemporary Australia, but I wanted to learn more. Hughes covers this immense topic with engaging prose. He talks about class divisions in England, a survey of British crime, penal theory, the practicalities of setting up a colony on an unexplored continent, the assignment system, aboriginal culture, secondary punishment sites, and the mass brutality on Norfolk Island. However, in the midst of punishment, there was also opportunity. Hughes stressed that not all masters were sadists and that conditionally pardoned prisoners often had better economic prospects than their counterparts in England. What a world.

I think it’s time to read some fiction.

2015 in books, March

March is weird. This past weekend I helped with a neighborhood clean up and it started snowing. The next day was 72 degrees and sunny. Similarly, my reading choices have been all over the place.

  • On This Day in Memphis History by G. Wayne Dowdy
    • I could have listened to Willy Bearden read me this book during the WKNO segments of NPR’s All Things Considered, but I decided to read it. It’s exactly what the title would lead you to believe– a historical blurb about things that happened in Memphis for each day of the year. It’s a good jumping off point for some of the research I’m doing at the museum.
  • The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley
    • I forgot how much I enjoy reading fantasy. Nothing makes me vacate the ordinary like a new world with its own vocabulary and operating instructions. Robin McKinley creates a place with cohesive rules that provide structure and move the story forward. Rather than bog you down with the details, she jumps right in and lets the reader do some of the work of figuring out how Damar runs. I loved this story. Major thanks to my LibraryThing Secret Santa for the reminder.
  • Black No More by George Schuyler
    • Harlem Renaissance. 1931. Satire. Biting, unforgiving and funny.
  • Burton Callicott: A Retrospective by Ray Kass and the Brooks Museum of Art
    • This exhibition catalog from the Brooks Museum explains “…Callicott’s artistic development, which has always emphasized specific content, originally drawn from the physical, social and moral ‘backyard’ of contemporary Memphis…” I’m doing research about his early PWAP murals at the Pink Palace, which is what prompted me to read my first art catalog.
  • Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
    • Fantastically well written love story. Rowell’s descriptions of both main characters’ thoughts and feelings about their relationship rang intrinsically true. The way they over thought every aspect of sitting together or holding hands flew me straight back to my first boyfriend. It was a nice thing to remember. And it was even nicer to realize how far I’ve come.
  • 9 1/2 Narrow: My Life in Shoes by Patricia Morrisroe
    • I read this book for the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program. Patricia Morrisroe tells her personal story by reflecting on the shoes that she wore at certain points in her life. She is at her best when describing the history of particular shoe styles and relating that history to her memories. Some of the chapters work significantly better than others, but it is an overall worthwhile read if you like reading about style.
  • Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
    • I first read Karen Russell a few months ago when my boss loaned me Swamplandia! Much like that novel, this collection of short stories is well conceived and nicely written. The common theme throughout these stories is an element of the fantastical, whether it is vampires attempting to sate their thirst by sucking on lemons or several United States presidents trying to come to terms with their reincarnated horse selves. I especially liked her story that was set on the prairie a few years after the passage of the Homestead Act. The Act itself drove each person’s and phantasmagorical creature’s actions, and the end results are horrifying and thoughtful. All of the stories can stand independently, but it was nice to read them as a collected whole.

2015 in Books, February

I’ve been asked if I actually enjoy reading or if I just consume books. Frankly, I love everything about reading–the initial promise of the cover, the feeling of being wrapped in another person’s philosophy and emotions, the satisfaction of learning where these characters are going, and closing the book with the knowledge that it’s there if I ever want it again. I also go through phases with my reading. Sometimes I intersperse nonfiction and novels, other times I lean heavily to one side and abandon the other. On occasion, I will read one book at a time, but I usually have more than one going. Often I have a research  book underway at work, a novel that I left in the nursery, another book that I started so that I could have something to read and not wake up the toddler, and then one that I just got off of the library’s wait list on my Kindle. I also read very, very fast. Usually, I don’t skim or speed read, but I left graduate school with an incredibly fast reading pace. I had to unlearn how to “gut” books (read for the thesis and major supporting arguments and skim the examples), but I was ultimately left with the ability to read faster and deeper. Valuable skills, I can assure you.

I got poison ivy on my face this month, so I had a few days of binge reading while I tried desperately not to scratch my face. The steroid fueled read-a-thon also coincided with bad weather, which created a perfect storm of word absorbing.

    • Yes Please by Amy Poehler
      • Frankly, not as good as Bossypants by Tina Fey, but it was still a fun read. Poehler’s all over the place, but there are some great quotes that I had to highlight, among them, “I love my boys so much I fear my heart will explode. I wonder if this love will crack open my chest and split me in half. It is scary, this love.” Also, “A story carves deep grooves into our brains each time we tell it. But we aren’t one story. We can change our stories. We can write our own.” I can empathize.
    • Southern Cross the Dog by Bill Cheng
      • I really enjoyed this novel set between the 1927 Mississippi River flood and the early 1940s. Cheng’s sentences are beautiful, and his story invokes a world that is at once distant and yet relatable through characters’ emotions. He also handles ingrained racism deftly. I will definitely pick up Cheng’s next novel, which I hope is not too long in coming.
    • Fever Season by Jeanette Keith
      • Sometimes I take forever to read a book. I’m pretty sure I started this one at least eight months ago as my eating-lunch-alone-at-work book. Thankfully, I don’t have to do that very often. Keith wrote about the 1878 yellow fever epidemic, and (like the best historians can do) she turned the historical actors into multidimensional people who helped or fled the city for a variety of internal and external reasons. She also does not shy away from gender or racial analysis. This book is a great compliment to Mary Caldwell Crosby’s American Plague about the larger scope of yellow fever epidemics. Speaking of Crosby…
    • The Great Pearl Heist by Mary Caldwell Crosby
      • What I like best about Crosby’s writing is the way she is able to make well researched facts read like the twists of a detective novel. She gives a glimpse of what 1913 London was like on the eve of World War I and tells a good story at the same time. Little Free Library win!
    • We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
      • My LibraryThing secret santa sent me this novel in December. Since I had been hoping to read it ever since my coworkers gave it glowing reviews, I was pleasantly surprised to be gifted it. I loved it. Read it. You’ll be happy.
    • In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson
      • I once again struck gold in the Pink Palace’s Little Free Library. This one was armchair travel at its finest; Bill Bryson combines tourist traps, history, trivia and endless amounts of driving into something more than I thought possible. There’s a reason people pay him money to go far away and write about it.
    • Winner of the National Book Award by Jincy Willett
      • Meh.
    • The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
      • This book takes on North Korea as a setting with complicated results. Sad, but with staying power.

The Reading Chair. A Delayed Gratification Story. Part I.

We recently moved a bookcase, which freed up some space in our living room. Upon taking a step back, we realized it would make a lovely spot for a lamp and a reading chair, largely due to the inability to see the TV from that location. The thing is, we have many projects (big and small) that we want to undertake this year, which means there’s no budget for a comfy chair.
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Enter the reading chair fund. We are savers by nature, and we decided that we can reasonably take some small cash denomination out of each paycheck and wait a year. The idea is that next January, we will have enough cash on hand to buy our chair. It is a way for us to separate out some money to do something small that we simply want. Sometimes I need to be reminded that money is not an enemy, and this envelope of delayed gratification will help.